Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lhasa: Day Two

"Where is breakfast? I was at the front desk of the Yak Hotel in Lhasa.

"Fifth floor."

"Where is the elevator?"

"There is no elevator.


I live on a 4th floor walk-up at home (no elevator there either) but at home I live at sea level. Lhasa is at 3650 meters, or 12,000 feet. That's a lot. It's not the highest city on earth or even the highest city I've ever visited—that honor prior to this trip belonged to La Paz, Bolivia, but only just as it wasn't much higher than Lhasa. Because I'd been there, I knew I'd be okay in Lhasa, though I was concerned about Everest Base Camp later in the week. But having been to La Paz didn't mean I breezed up the stairs here. I was puffing a bit by the time I got to the top. I was glad I'd booked in for four days to acclimate before heading down the Friendship Highway.

The view from the roof of the Yak was lovely, as the brilliant sun and blue sky lit up the entire town. The Potala Palace, now a museum but once the home of the Dalai Lama (and his predecessors/incarnates), tantalized me from a mile away.

Not yet.

Today was earmarked for the Dalai Lama's summer palace and the Drepung Monastery. But first, breakfast.

I took one look in the breakfast room and fled. There must have been a tour bus at the Yak—the little room was packed, chaotic, and the buffet breakfast running low.

Back down the stairs I went to the Dunya next door.

"But you get free breakfast at your hotel..." The wait staff was concerned.

"Please, I'm happy to pay."

I only did this the first morning, at least. I learned to get up earlier after that, to miss the breakfast crowd.

My guide was waiting for me in the lobby at 9, to take me to Drepung Monastery. This is a 600-year-old compound, and nearly half of it was destroyed in the fifties when the Chinese arrived. The main buildings were left intact and that's what makes this a unique sight—most of the monasteries had been destroyed during that time.

Dreprung was in the news in 2008. This was home to the monks the led the protests in spring of that year, resulting in deaths from the Chinese-military crackdown. Or maybe they didn't. Maybe it was other monks. Maybe it was everyone. We can't be sure. Tibetans get their international news from Voice of America, but there isn't a parallel Tibetan news agency that sends us a constant feed of uncensored news from the ground in Lhasa. Which is why I keep qualifying everything I am writing about Tibet. I can't be entirely sure that I am using accurate sources of information.

"Today we will take a taxi," explained Rinchin as he hailed a cab.

Uh-oh, I thought. I have to pay for this, don't I? I vaguely recalled something about how I had paid only for the guide, driver for the days outside of Lhasa, and the car outside of Lhasa. Everything else was on top of that—admissions, hotels,, right? Shit. How did I end up in this taxi? Isn't there a bus? How much would this set me back?

We drove ten kilometers out of town towards Drepung, as I watched the meter and tried to remember how much money was in my wallet. Then, at the gate, the driver said something to the guide, who turned around to speak to me.

"He wants more money to drive us past his checkpoint to the gate, okay?"

I lost my temper.

"What do you mean I have to pay more? Haven't I already paid enough? You can't keep charging me for things. It's not right."

Worried, the guide backtracked.

"No...what I mean is that there is a fee to drive past here, to go up to the actual gate. It's a long hill but I guess we could walk. The taxi driver wants you to pay the fee."

Oh. Well, now I felt a little silly. But still...

"Look, Rinchin. I don't like surprises about money. I've paid a lot for this trip and always there is moremoremore. You need to inform me in advance when I have to spend money, and we should have taken the bus."

I felt like kind of a jerk but I was also pissed. I like those guides that warn you. "There is a fee for this, and that, and this, and you will need to pay for the entrance to the temple parking lot." That way you actually bring along enough money.

But I calmed down once I realized I was overreacting, and only sulked a little when we got to the entrance to the monastery. I headed up the stairs, past a cheerful woman burning incense offerings, and alongside colorful Buddha murals painted high on the mountain stone faces.

Once we passed prayer wheels and were inside the temples (there are various shrines and stupas within the compound), I couldn't take photos anymore. Or sometimes I could for a fee, but they were crowded anyway and too dark for non-flash shots.

This monastery held thousands of monks at its height and now only had about 300, because of restrictions by the Chinese government, presumably after the monk activism of 2008. That's a guess on my part. Many monks live in India as refugees. My guide didn't tell me that—I read it on Wikipedia. So maybe it's right but maybe it isn't.

As we walked through the temples, we saw murals everywhere--many of them identical. Religious art in Tibetan-Buddhist artwork tends to follow certain rules and there are limits to how many liberties the artist can take. So I started to notice themes and images repeating themselves. Of course there were the Buddhas—but there were also tigers, lions, dogs, the goddess Tara, a blue god of power, and something called the wheel of life.

We also saw lots and lots of tourists. Most of them were Chinese tourists on packaged bus tours. They were rushing through, led by one overwhelmed guide. But there were a few independent Chinese tourists as well, taking their time.

We finally emerged into the daylight on the other side of the compound, to hear some thumping and singing.

"What's that?" I asked.

"What...that? They're just working."

"They sing when they work."

"Yes, they are building a roof."

I stopped and watched for a minute as my bored guide kept walking. He'd seen people working plenty of times.

But I'd never seen people singing and thumping while they worked.

Rinchin had been giving some thought to my inner cheapskate while we'd been seeing the sights, and now he walked us down the hill rather than getting a taxi. He treated me to a disgustingly milky tea (the norm) and then took me down the hill to the bus stop.

We boarded a brand-new bus from Drepung to the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace. Two women hopped on—one took one yuan for each of us (Rinchin covered me) and the other drove the bus. About 20 minutes later, we disembarked at the Summer Palace.

Rinchin smiled.

"That's the first time I've taken that bus."

I could work with this guide. I *was* annoyed at the government's policy of forcing me to basically pay for an entourage, but this guy, he wasn't bad. He'd heard me loud and clear. He'd taken me on a local bus, through the back streets and residential neighborhoods, and I'd been able to do my thing, which is go on local transport, even though I was hobbled by so many restrictions.

Yes, this could work.

We toured the lovely gardens of the Summer Palace and the less-lovely interior (which had been decorated in the fifties, ouch), and then my guide agreed to leave me to wander the old town alone until tomorrow. I scampered off to wander around off-leash.

More photos of my first two days in Lhasa are here.

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